Approximately 5,000 visitors walk through the doors of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart each month. Some come to attend Mass under Luigi Gregori's intricately painted ceilings, while others come to marvel at Ivan Meštrović's famed Pietà sculpture or to listen to the magnificent 5,000-pipe Murdy Family organ. Yet others still come to tour the reliquary chapel and learn about the rich history of the Basilica.
Surprisingly, many who pass through those grand double doors remain unaware of the modest chapel situated just one floor below. Here, there aren't elaborate murals on the wall or dazzling stained-glass windows, but nestled between the wooden pews, you'll find a single marble crypt with the Latin inscription:
“Here lies Orestes A. Brownson, who acknowledged humbly the true faith, lived a complete life, and by writing and speaking courageously defended his church and country, and, granted that his body may have been taken by death, the endeavors of his mind remain immortal monuments of genius.”
William Phelan (1793–1856), an early benefactor of Notre Dame and stepfather to Mother Angela of the Sisters of the Holy Cross, is also buried in the chapel directly below the nave of the Basilica. His crypt is less accessible and, therefore, better preserved than that of Orestes A. Brownson.
One of only two people buried under the Basilica, Orestes Augustus Brownson was neither a student nor a faculty member at Notre Dame. In fact, there is no record of him ever visiting the University. Yet his final resting place conveys he played an important role in the history of Our Lady's University. So how did he get such a coveted burial spot on campus?
Born in 1803 in Vermont, Brownson was not raised Catholic. In fact, over the course of his life, he studied many different religions, searching for truth and meaning in each. It wasn't until 1844, after being baptized by the College of the Holy Cross's founder, Bishop Benedict Joseph Fenwick, S.J., that Brownson was accepted into the Catholic Church.
Despite a modest upbringing and no formal education, Brownson was regarded as a leading intellectual of the early 19th century. A prolific writer, Brownson penned a staggering 2.5 million words for the Boston Quarterly Review and, later, Brownson's Quarterly Review, cementing his status as one of the most voluminous writers in America. Many of his early essays centered on politics and democracy. However, after converting to Catholicism, he was encouraged by Bishop Fitzpatrick of Boston to focus more on theology. His dedication to educating the masses earned him honorary degrees from both St. John's College (later Fordham University) and Norwich University.
Eventually, his work caught the attention of a young and ambitious French priest who had recently immigrated to America to open a Catholic university. Over the years, Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C., and Brownson formed a long-distance friendship. At Father Sorin's request, Brownson wrote several articles for the Ave Maria, a magazine from the Congregation of Holy Cross's Ave Maria Press. One such essay on the Blessed Virgin won a contest sponsored by the Ave Maria. (The prize was rumored to be $200 in gold; however, at the last minute, Father Sorin decided to select two winners instead of one, much to Brownson's chagrin.)
Father Sorin invited Brownson to teach at the University in 1862, but he was campaigning for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and declined the offer. When his bid for Congress failed, Brownson accepted Father Sorin's invitation despite being “appalled that his services be required daily from six in the morning to ten at night,” and stating that his “health won't permit such action.” His letter included a date to meet in Chicago, but no records show that he ever made the trip. The next documented correspondence between the two men wasn't until 1865 and continued until shortly before Brownson died of pneumonia at the age of 72 in 1876.
He was originally buried in Detroit, Michigan, but in June 1886, he was re-interred in the Brownson Memorial Chapel of the Sacred Heart Church, later known as the Crypt church of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.
Father Sorin held Brownson in such high regard that he named one of the first residence halls, located in the east wing of the Main Building, Brownson Hall. It housed students aged 17 and up, while the west wing, named Carroll Hall, housed students aged 13 to 17. Later, in 1945, both wings of the Main Building were converted to office space, housing a variety of departments. Notre Dame didn't have a Brownson Hall again until 1965, when it quietly gave that name to Ave Maria Press's former space after the press moved to Douglas Road.
In 2019, this Brownson Hall was demolished so that the Remick Family Hall could be built. Today, it's the home of the Alliance for Catholic Education—fitting for a place that was once named after a man devoted to educating others on Catholicism. In 2022, bricks saved from the demolition were used to expand Sorin Hall.
And while it's clear that Brownson made notable contributions to furthering the Catholic faith in America, the question remains: Why him?
The Basilica's tour and hospitality coordinator, Katie Pelster, may have the answer. According to Pelster, Father Sorin's vision was to have American Catholics buried in the Basilica—particularly, academic American Catholics, “so that we could remember the work they had done in the Catholic Church in America,” she said.
“Even if they weren't saints or anyone particularly venerated,” she shared, “it was important for the University to have examples of Catholic lay people here.” It isn't clear, she said, why more American Catholic academics weren't buried in the Basilica.
Brownson had purportedly expressed his desire to spend his final days at Notre Dame but died before it could happen. Perhaps it was his admiration of the University that led his son Henry F. Brownson to donate his entire works—a 20-volume set that he collected and arranged between 1882 and 1887—to the Notre Dame Archives, writing “it is a pleasure and a consolation to collect them so that they may be preserved for future generations which shall better appreciate them.”
The University's relationship with the Brownson family doesn't end there. Henry's son Philip V.D. Brownson studied at the University and was suspended for a short period for attempting to attend more courses than permitted. He went on to graduate in 1888 as valedictorian of his class, receiving first honors in Greek and moral philosophy. A few years later, in 1892, the University awarded Henry F. Brownson the Laetare Medal for translating Francesco Tarducci's The Life of Christopher Columbus. Henry's daughter, Josephine D. Brownson, was also awarded the Laetare Medal in 1939 for her contributions to the Catholic Instruction League. To this day, Henry and Josephine are the only two related recipients of the Laetare Medal. In 1950, the University hosted a symposium commemorating the 150th anniversary of Orestes A. Brownson's birth.
Brownson's prolific writings resonate through time, leaving an indelible mark on the annals of Catholicism in America. His connection with the University, forged through his relationship with the visionary Father Sorin, speaks of a mutual devotion to a higher calling. The legacies left behind are reminders that, to this day, seekers of truth and defenders of faith carry on Father Sorin's mission to be a continued force for good in the world.